starring Samuel L. Jackson, Juliette Binoche, Brendan Gleeson, Menzi Ngubane
screenplay by Ann Peacock, based on the novel Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog
directed by John Boorman
by Walter Chaw A wrongheaded film from a director responsible for a couple of masterpieces (Deliverance, Point Blank), a couple of cult classics (Excalibur, Zardoz), one of the best films of the '90s (The General), a couple of unqualified disasters (Exorcist II: The Heretic, Leo the Last), and a few flicks that are just sort of middling there in-between grotesque (Where the Heart Is), winsome (Hope and Glory), and generally freaky (The Emerald Forest), In My Country--originally more provocatively titled Country of My Skull--finds itself closer to a disaster than to a noodle. It makes the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in post-Apartheid South Africa something of a Western problem instead of an African one (better were it elevated into a human one) and, worse, makes an illicit romance between two fictional characters, public radio journalist Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche, atrociously cast) and WASHINGTON POST journalist Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a metaphor for South Africa endeavouring to make love, not war.
A scene after a gruelling day of testimony from survivors and the bereaved of atrocities committed in the name of anti-terrorism (the sharp echo of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is the film's most fascinating fallout) encapsulates the picture's failings, with Anna, Langston, and what is essentially their native porter, Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), "comically" deciding that it's a bad time to give up smoking. It's an unbelievably self-satisfied moment that highlights just exactly how inadequate a foreground narrative like fictional lovers in a dangerous time can be when the background is something so visceral and horrific as decades of institutional malfeasance. If you actually care that these ciphers are moved by the horrorshow or, more, that eternally-scowling Langston is laying the wood to eternally-weeping Anna amid recreations of actual transcripts taken from the TRC hearings, then you probably liked Pearl Harbor and, as if more proof were needed, there's something really wrong with you.
The rest of the piece plays out like a liberal version of an Ayn Rand polemic, positing a heroic viewpoint against a weak one in a series of pre-determined dialectics that should strike most viewers as childish and strident. Anna is the fall guy, an Afrikaner (at one point Langston says something like "...because you don't sound Chinese," to which anyone in their right mind would say, "You don't sound Afrikaner, either, you sound French") set up to say a lot of stupid things so that righteous black man Langston (when, exactly, did Jackson become the defender of African pride, by the by?) has the target and platform to rave on about genocide and the plight of the black man under a particularly odious heel. It all feels parsed in a way that's pretty ugly, and it all seems artificial because these are, essentially, paper puppets engaged in fifth-grade sociology. There's nothing that sounds stupider than a white person writing the lament of the oppressed.
Because the spectre of colonialism run amuck isn't enough of a bogey, insert a fire-breathing colonel played by the great Brendan Gleeson and allow he and Jackson to have a randomly inserted, poorly written and shot mano-a-mano in Gleeson's taxidermy-festooned den. (Shades of Norman Bates's back-office, though the parallel goes unexplored.) And because the picture can't quite bring itself to equate the actions of minor thugs to the actions of this major thug--even though it manages quite nicely to equate a mother demanding her son's pickled hands back from the monster who kept them on his desk with an old man wanting to know why some policemen hacked down his fruit trees--at the end of the film, all this talk about healing the wounds of Africa with forgiveness is fed to the fire of vengeance once Gleeson's brute is denied amnesty to a chorus of crowd-pleasing cheers. It takes a bigger person than me to embrace my torturer (I'll never be caught in a spoon with Michael Bay, in other words), but when the message of In My Country is the miracle of the African ability to forgive, a little grave temperance when another man--no matter his sins--is sent to the gallows would be more than just welcome: it's to be expected. Originally published: March 11, 2005.